Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Food court: Naked lunch

A small but noisy bunch clustered on the sidewalk outside the church. They ranged in age from around 50 to about 20. A small, black man with a slight build ushered out a toddler dressed in pink, passing a group of gangly meth-heads wearing wife beaters and jeans slung low on their ass.

I almost didn't go in, but then I saw the man with the bicycle helmet from yesterday pumping forward full of purpose. He didn't seem to recognize me, and like Alice following the white rabbit, I trailed him through the side door into Manna Meal at St. John's.

He was gone by the time I got in the hallway, but I followed the low rumble of chatter, watched carefully and got in line. Today, they were serving mixed bean soup, some dodgy looking cornbread, a salad and a thick, crusty blueberry cobbler that was more bread than berry.

Since, I'm watching my carbs, I stuck with the soup and the salad. The soup was good, but could have used a little salt. The greens of the salad were wilted and crushed. The whole thing was marinated in an indeterminate dressing the color and consistency of semen.

It tasted like vegetable oil and maybe a little sugar.

The place was about half-full. Friends and passing acquaintances gathered together. Some of them were dirty, possibly homeless. Others were old and several of them work in town. I recognized them, if only by sight.

I sat alone with a knot the size of my fist in my stomach, ate my beans and watched. Across the way, a woman I knew from my earlier days in Charleston, back when my night job included talking the mentally challenged into taking credit cards sponsored by the KISS Army. She was still in college, struggling with her parents who could no longer afford to send her to the college of her choice and groaning under the weight of a love affair she no longer really wanted.

I remember her well. She was the last person who ever had a crush on me before I was married again. I have no idea what the attraction was, but she sat next to me when we took calls and followed me out into the dark to watch me smoke when they gave us a break. Mostly, she did the talking. I was exhausted and hated the job. It was all I could do to not run screaming.

The weekend before I got married the shift boss announced my impending wedding. She looked at me once, took her headset off then walked away.

I've seen her around here and there. She got married, I knew, graduated, I suppose and got a real job, but some time had passed. I don't think she remembers me anymore, which makes the whole experience of the time very strange. At times, I even doubt it, except of course, it happened.

She was sitting at a table across the room, chatting with a couple of the diners. She had a cup of coffee in front of her, in a mug, and not a small glass of ice water --pretty clearly, a volunteer or employee and not one of the "clients."

She looked over at me and for the first time in seven years, I think she recognized me. It was an awful, awful feeling.

I finished my beans, picked through the salad and took my tray back.

This was my first day.

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